I almost didn’t even get into Bali.
A surly immigration official at Denpasar airport asked to see my entry stamp into Indonesia, and since I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I mistakenly pointed to the Malaysian one.
He must have been having a bad day as he became extremely angry and rude, not a common sight in Bali or any Southeast Asian airport, for that matter.
He berated me for not wearing my reading glasses at all times (??) and pointed to the right stamp, scolding me like a school child. I smiled and said a few unworthy things to him in Spanish, the only language I felt I could get away with.
The day continued from there, downhill: I was yelled at by a taxi driver for staying in a difficult-to-find losmen, or guest house, though I did eventually get there after carting my gear on foot through dark alleys at midnight because the cab driver was afraid (justifiably, as it turns out) that his car might not fit into the narrow streets.
I emerged from that glad-its-over day into a tiny oasis of serenity, a lush tropical garden at my door, filled with a multitude of intricately carved wooden Hindu temples, incense rolling across the garden air, flowers and tiny offerings of rice and petals on every available surface.
Bali’s beauty and peace
Any frustration I had accumulated evaporated as I savored the peace of the moment and the exquisite architectural curlicues (not the technical term). The living room was a raised platform in the middle of the garden, open to the air, with no walls, only a few columns to hold up the gently sloping roof and its upward-curving edges.
The only flaw in what was otherwise a little gem was the early morning rooster call by the owner’s prize-fighting cock. I gestured “wrung neck” and “soup” and he looked suitably horrified. But not as horrified as I was at the idea of animals fighting one another to the death…
Having been jolted out of bed by the rooster, I wandered down the streets of Denpasar.
Every few meters was an offering to the gods, a little basket made of palm fronds filled with incense, rice, flowers, or fruit, maybe depending on the wealth of the offerer. The more sincere prepare their own offerings from scratch, the movers and shakers buy them ready-made, since they feel they have no time for such wasteful endeavors.
Throughout Bali, I would see women spending their afternoons preparing little baskets for the next offering, each little one a miniature work of art, which is really what Bali is all about. Even in the dirtiest street, in the most crowded commercial area, a little Hindu temple juts out like a jewel, its brick and cement walls in contrasting red and gray, its columns adorned with sculptures of hundreds of deities.
A strong fashion sense, as always
Bali is mostly a Hindu island, though there is a Muslim population. The muezzin can be heard here too, but only in the distance.
And my working day was about to begin.
I made my way to the local ministry offices, where I had scheduled interviews, dressed up in my ‘working’ duds – a flowered granny skirt (this was the 1990s), my field shirt with all the pockets and my day pack, and of course my one and only pair of shoes, my trusted Teva open-toed sandals (sorry, pumps didn’t fit in the backpack).
Suddenly, a row of black limousines arrived and disgorged an extremely elegant lady in a fuschia suit, jewelry to kill for, made up for a cocktail party, heading directly towards me with her hand outstretched.
I had somehow become part of an official ministerial delegation touring Bali for the day, which I would spend visiting health facilities at the minister’s side, riding in one of the lead cars, preceded by a motorcycle escort, sirens blaring, scattering chickens, dogs and traffic left and right as we sped through.
At some point during the day, probably early on, I would learn to my distress that showing your toes was not considered polite, especially when accompanying high-level dignitaries to Very Important Places. Oh well…
The Balinese interior
The scenery was not what I had expected.
For me, Bali was a tropical island paradise, with lovely beaches and swaying palms. There are certainly plenty of those, which I would eventually get to visit, but what stunned me was the unexpected beauty of the interior.
A mountainous island filled to capacity with people, the Balinese have had to make use of every possible millimeter of land. Rice fields climb up the mountainsides in flat little strips of green which look like naive paintings suspended in the sky. Lots of plastic waves in the wind to scare away the birds, but it is artistically arranged, each little strip fluttering in symmetry. And the scarecrow has become an art form. In one field, a rather amazing one was graced with a huge bright red wooden penis, so huge it was mounted like a machine gun on a large wooden tripod… The Balinese do have a sense of humor.
Yes, there are plenty of palms, but also other trees, and more than anything, flowers, flowers everywhere, bright crimsons and lavenders, cyans and ochres, and every hue of green –emerald, lime, mint, truly an explosion for the senses. It’s not a natural beauty, apart from the species variety, but a man-made one, where each tiny corner of a place is lovingly crafted.
The light, too, has a mystical quality and gives everything a special translucent sheen. Even the palm and tobacco plantations have a linear artistic beauty about them, which almost makes you forget they are plantations. Yes, the island grows tobacco and exports the leaves to Germany.
Just your average Balinese working day
So here I was, thoroughly underdressed for the occasion, covering a story in a foreign language I could absolutely not understand. Simple things like ‘we’re stopping for lunch’ or ‘let’s go’ eluded me.
At one point, I had no idea I was being introduced by the minister until some hands grabbed me and stood me up, another hand gently pressing against my back, indicating I should bow, which I promptly did, of course.
The minister had a firm and energetic demeanor and spoke the language pointedly, punctuating her staccato sentences with a lot of exclamations, which to my unaccustomed ears sounded a bit like… Klingon.
No matter, though. Even if I didn’t understand a word, she kept me enthralled by the passion in her voice.
The day had its funny moments. At one point during an official ceremony, the minister introduced me as a noted overseas journalist, as national television cameras whirred (I was anything but noted, I thought, staring glumly at my very obvious toes).
I was given the super red carpet treatment, much to my embarrassment. The local TV crews were relegated to a van near the back as I sailed over the mountains in an air-conditioned limousine at the front of the motorcade.
A cultural extravaganza
Each time we stopped, there was a cultural event. I watched dances, listened to musical groups, admired puppets and swayed to gamelan orchestras. It was as though all of Bali’s culture had been laid out for me for a day.
I think what most impressed me was a Hindu dance, though I don’t quite know what I was looking at. The dancers were about 10-11 years old, and never have I seen such grace. Every part of their body seemed to move independently, the eyes this way, the mouth that, the neck another, each hand just so, fingers placed in different directions, limbs with lives of their own. I tried duplicating just one move in the mirror later and the best I could do was bounce against the wall and gracefully end up on the floor.
Each venue was a work of art, open-walled halls with thatched roofs, hardwood columns, and hand-crafted indoor gardens with tiny flowers, plants and pebbles that would have taken me a month to arrange with an instruction booklet. This entire island has a natural grace and anything someone touches looks lovely.
At another stop, I thought I’d entered a movie set as thousands, and I mean thousands, of uniformed children cheered us, waving little Indonesian flags and chanting at the top of their lungs. A full feature film crew could not have orchestrated this better.
I had several meals during the day, probably a dozen or so, sampling Balinese specialties at each stop – coconut- and bean-based sweets, rice and banana cake, roast suckling pig, all manner of chili chicken.
The minister’s aide gave me snake fruit to try – and I was hooked. It’s called salak, and the peel is hard and scaly. Under it is a crunchy slightly sour fruit with a few large pits. It tastes like a cross between strawberries and quince, with a consistency somewhere between apple and lychee. I’m told you can’t find it anywhere but Indonesia and after having eaten at least ten, was told one should limit consumption to one or two because, you know, the belly.
I also had an unusual drink, some kind of coconut milk with caramelized sugar at the bottom with bits of floating green jelly throughout… hard to describe but tasty, perhaps some kind of bubble tea forerunner.
By day’s end, I was waddling.
We finished at the Grand Bali Beach where the minister’s party was staying, met by the burst of photographers’ flashes as we exited the cars. The minister shook my hand, gave me a sarong as a gift, politely kept her eyes away from my sandals and chatted as though we were old friends, all of this again being recorded for posterity.
I was then driven home by the governor’s third secretary, an illustrious personage who was delighted to practice his English with me. It took forever to find my humble abode, as it was in a part of town he’d never visited before.
He wouldn’t give up and, inevitably, the limousine got stuck on my excessively narrow street, creating a large amount of interest among the curious neighbors and validating the concerns of the original taxi driver who had refused to drive me to my doorstep.
My sandals and I tumbled out of the car, all thoughts of keeping a low profile long gone, but a day I can never recall without blushing, just a little bit.